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Facial recognition on the outs

Image: Antonis Makriyannis / Protocol
Facial recognition

Good morning! This Thursday, Portland bans facial recognition, Jessica Rosenworcel considers the future of Section 230, and Amazon wants to play nice with Siri.

By the way, have you subscribed to Janko Roettgers' new tech and entertainment newsletter, Next Up? The first issue just came out today.

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The Big Story

Portland's facial recognition clampdown

Starting Jan. 1, 2021, there will be no public-facing facial recognition tech allowed in Portland. None. Not by the government, not by law enforcement, not even by private companies.

The city's council voted unanimously to enact the country's strongest law on the subject. And given the way other cities have looked to each other for guidance (and occasional one-upmanship) on the topic, this figures to be a precedent.

  • How sweeping is the ban? It makes an explicit exception for "user verification purposes … to access the individual's own personal or employer issues communication and electronic devices." So, Face ID is allowed. Barely.
  • In general, there's more wiggle room for people and companies using it internally. But facial recognition won't be allowed in hotels, grocery stores, airports or anywhere the public would engage with it.

Portland has gone further than other cities, notably in Boston and the Bay Area, which have banned facial recognition until further notice as they seek to figure out how to regulate the technology in the longer term. But Portland argues that facial recognition tech just mostly … doesn't work very well.

  • "Face recognition technologies have been documented to have an unacceptable gender and racial bias," the council wrote. "The city needs to take precautionary actions until these technologies are certified and safe to use and civil liberties issues are resolved."

Amazon reportedly spent $24,000 trying to kill Portland's bill, or at least to take some of the teeth out of it. Rekognition, the company's facial recognition software that's used by everyone from the NFL to police departments, is a fast-growing business that effectively disappears from any city with a ban like this one. And the rule also skewers part of Amazon's cashierless supermarket concept.

The trend here is clear: More cities are going to enact strict bans, until Congress does something at a national level. And there are two parts to this, both important. There are moral questions about privacy, advertising and personal data; and there are practical realities, like the fact that facial recognition tech frequently doesn't work. The way Portland sees it, it's not even worth addressing the first issue until we've fixed the second one. I suspect others will see it that way, too.

Policy

The real future for Section 230

Somebody introduces a bill to change Section 230 approximately every 17 minutes, it seems like. We don't cover most of them, because they're roughly as likely to change the law as that guy who doesn't want them to be called "boneless" wings anymore.

But there's still real change to come for the internet's most-debated 26 words. Protocol's Emily Birnbaum chatted with FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who does a good job seeing truth amid a lot of the silliness.

  • 230 reform is a conversation worth having, she said: "Let's have a conversation in Congress about this law, who it benefits, what it fosters and what updates are necessary. That's smart, that's fair. Let's do it mindful of the constitution. But the executive order from the president is just an invitation for the FCC to help organize online speech in his favor, and that's not something that my agency should be doing."
  • Trump's executive order on 230, and the overall rancor around the issue, has made the process worse, she said: "When one of my colleagues expressed skepticism that the agency had authority to do everything that the executive order suggested, he shortly thereafter found that his renomination was withdrawn by the president. Stand back, because it looks troubling."
  • And given some of the results of the public consultation about the order, who even knows what people think? "I started reading through comments that were filed and found that Fred Flintstone has offered his thoughts on Section 230," she said. "So I'm concerned that this process is going to suffer from so much of the same fraud we saw during the effort to secure comment on net neutrality."

Rosenworcel also talks about TikTok, the digital divide in education, what she'd like to see from a Biden administration and more. It's a good read, check it out.

Voice

Alexa, tell Google to talk to Siri

The voice market looked like a winner-take-all future for a while. Whichever assistant you picked, you'd use it everywhere, for everything, because different ones wouldn't play together. So the race was on to get into the most devices, the fastest.

But Amazon, which was winning that race, sees it differently. It's been pushing the Voice Interoperability Initiative since last fall, urging other companies and manufacturers to support multiple assistants on a single device. And yesterday, it announced a few new names on the list, including Facebook and Xiaomi.

  • There are now 77 members of the VII, also including Intel, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Sonos and Tencent.
  • Google and Apple, the other big players in voice, are noticeably missing. So is Samsung, but I don't think Bixby was in the running to draw level with Alexa.
  • Why would Amazon want this? Because voice is still young enough that more adoption and use, for anyone, is a win for the whole industry. Amazon's playing a long game, betting that whenever voice becomes A Big Thing, it'll be in a strong position.

My hot take has always been that more is more. If voice is going to work, it'll take lots of assistants instead of just one. "Alexa, turn on the TV and play 'Succession'" makes a lot less sense than "TV, play 'Succession,'" and it's a whole lot easier to build a narrow-but-great voice system than to try and be all things to all people.

I don't know if the VII is the solution to this problem, in part because I can't imagine Google and Apple ever joining an Amazon-led coalition, but something like it feels like the right answer. And as anyone currently forced to use Siri can attest, choice is a good thing.

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People Are Talking

The sky in the Bay Area was pretty much the biggest thing on anyone's mind yesterday. (And it wasn't just the Bay Area, by the way.)

  • It looked like an overdone sci-fi movie, it screwed up everybody's camera white-balances, and I can't imagine I'm the only one who found it really hard to focus on anything else. Hope everyone's safe and sound.

And the scary-looking sky should galvanize everyone to solve real problems with tech, Patrick Collison said:

  • "We need to figure out out how to coexist with our forests and how to facilitate the right amount of managed fire activity. We need to improve our ability to detect and when necessary fight fires … we need to figure out how to cheaply generate enough clean energy and to reduce CO2 emissions, so that the temperature increases behind growing aridity don't make fire season worse every year."

In non-sky news, remember the Facebook ad boycott from earlier this summer? That was never going to work, WPP founder Martin Sorrell said:

  • "You don't confront them in public. What you do is try and lobby privately for changes, and I think they've made changes. They have 35,000 people monitoring editorial content. They take down some of the extreme groups, they've altered the nature of the algorithm."

One weird thing about making a Netflix show? Being canceled by the algorithm, "Tuca & Bertie" creator Lisa Hanawalt said:

  • "When we announced it, I expected people to say, 'Ah, well, that happens.' The fact that people were as upset as I was felt cathartic, because it really did feel unfair. It was nice to have fans banging the drum."

Making Moves

Amazon's having a digital career day next week, as it tries to fill 33,000 open jobs across the U.S. It's also offering 20,000 career-coaching sessions to potential job seekers.

Speaking of Amazon: Keith Alexander is the company's newest board member. Alexander is the CEO of IronNet Security, and the former director of the NSA.

Bill Earner joined Citymapper as general manager. He was previously a managing partner at Connect Ventures, a Citymapper investor.

Twitter is looking to sublease big chunks of its San Francisco office, after telling employees they can work from home forever. If you end up renting any of it, let me know. I have good lunch recommendations.

In Other News

  • Reliance reportedly offered Amazon a $20 billion stake in Reliance Retail. Bloomberg reports that Amazon's not made a decision on the deal yet, which would be India's biggest ever. (It would also make Jio's fundraising spree for the same amount look like a real slog.).
  • Facebook may have to suspend data transfers from the EU to the U.S. at the demand of Ireland's Data Protection Commission. This was fairly inevitable after the EU struck down Privacy Shield in July, but the order is only preliminary and things could still change. In a blog post, Facebook's Nick Clegg said the decision could "damage the economy."
  • ByteDance is trying to avoid a TikTok sale, reports The Wall Street Journal. It's negotiating with the U.S. to see if the company can be restructured or take on a U.S. tech partner. Meanwhile, that Sept. 20 deadline keeps ticking closer.
  • Apple will stop Epic Games from using Sign In With Apple tomorrow, Epic said. As Riley Testut pointed out, that could put many developers off using the feature.
  • Walmart is piloting drone delivery in North Carolina, powered by Flytrex. Yet more evidence for the "Walmart Is A Tech Company" thesis.
  • On Protocol: Eric Ries launched the Long-Term Stock Exchange, designed to cater to companies that commit to policies around diversity, sustainability and long-term planning. $117 million worth of stocks were traded on its first day.
  • Eric Schmidt bought a $30.8 million mansion in Montecito, reports The Wall Street Journal. It's actually kind of a bargain: It was initially listed for $57.5 million in 2012. The WSJ has pics, and it's plush. Looking forward to the invite, Eric.
  • Lucid revealed its Tesla competitor, and it's fast. The top-end Air Dream Edition is estimated to have 1,080 horsepower, hit 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and cover 503 miles on a charge. It also costs $169,000, though a less powerful model will cost "below $80,000."
  • Apple designed its own face masks for corporate and retail employees. My reaction roughly matched Tom Krazit's, who wondered aloud in Protocol's Slack if "the straps to attach it to your head cost $49 extra."

One More Thing

Fear is the mind-killer

Have you seen the "Dune" trailer yet? You have to watch the "Dune" trailer. And then watch this cool interview with Stephen Colbert and the cast. And then watch the trailer a bunch more times.

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Cloud

Join us today at 9 a.m. PT for a deep-dive conversation on the state of the cloud. Tom Krazit will explore how best practices for cloud computing are evolving during an unprecedented economic period, featuring Okta CIO Alvina Antar, Novant Health CDTO Angela Yochem and PagerDuty SVP of product Jonathan Rende. This event is presented by Pure Storage.

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Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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